1782 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Matthew Prior

William Cowper to William Unwin, 17 January 1782; in Hayley, Life of Cowper (1803-04; 1806) 1:294-95.



His reputation as an author, who, with much labour indeed, but with admirable success, has embellished all his poems with the most charming ease, stood unshaken 'till Johnson thrust his head against it. And how does he attack him in this his principal fort? I cannot recollect his very words, but I am much mistaken indeed, if my memory fails me with respect to the purport of them. "His words," he says, "appear to be forced into their proper places: There indeed we find them, but find likewise, that their arrangement has been the effect of constraint, and that without violence, they would certainly have stood in a different order." By your leave, most learned Doctor, this is the most disingenuous remark I ever met with, and would have come with a better grace from Curl, or Dennis. Every man conversant with verse-writing, knows, and knows by painful experience, that the familiar style, is of all styles the most difficult to succeed in. To make verse speak the language of prose, without being prosaic, to marshal the words of it in such an order, as they might naturally take in falling from the lips of an extemporary speaker, yet without meanness; harmoniously, elegantly, and without seeming to displace a syllable for the sake of the rhyme, is one of the most arduous tasks a poet can undertake. He that could accomplish this task was Prior; many have imitated his excellence in this particular, but the best copies have fallen far short of the original. And now to tell us, after we and our fathers have admired him for it so long, that he is an easy writer indeed, but that his ease has an air of stiffness in it, in short, that his ease is not ease, but only something like it, what is it but a self contradiction, an observation that grants what is is just going to deny, and denies what it has just granted, in the same sentence, and in the same breath?